Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Certain Girls," by Jennifer Weiner

A follow-up to the smash hit Good in Bed, Certain Girls brings back Cannie Shapiro years later. Her mother is out of the closet, her daughter Joy is about to have a bat mitzvah, husband Peter is a successful diet doctor, sister Elle still begs for money, and ex Bruce is still smarting from Cannie's vicious "fictionalized" portrayal of him in her debut novel. Though to be fair, he started it by chronicling their sex life in a national magazine.

So Girls is the dual story of Cannie and Joy. Cannie struggles with her daughter's growing problems with grades and a negative attitude, along with Peter's desire to have another baby. Unfortunately, due to complications with Joy's birth, Cannie'd had a hysterectomy, which leaves the couple looking for a surrogate.

Joy is thirteen, self-absorbed, hateful to her mother, and completely unlikeable. While I can understand her need to find out more about the book her mother had written so many years ago, especially since it's so based on reality, Joy is just a brat. The things she thinks about her mother made me want to slap her. She begins acting out: shoplifting, lying, sneaking out of state to a party. Then she steals her mother's credit card, books a flight and fancy hotel, along with a car and driver, and hops a plane to California to find her grandfather, certain that her mother, aunt, uncle, and grandmother have all been terribly wrong about what a jerk the guy is. Oh, shocker, she finds out he is a jerk. But what kind of punishment does Joy get for this escapade? She gets the extremely expensive dress that she'd been whining about getting for her bat mitzvah. And grounded for a month. Boo hoo.

As if this wasn't annoying enough, the best character gets killed off. I'm so sick of writers using this as a plot point to finish off a book. It's unnecessary, cruel to the readers, and just stinks of manipulation.

2 stars

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"The Year of Disappearances," by Susan Hubbard

I've been putting off reviewing this book because it pains me to give a negative review when I so much loved The Society of S, its predecessor.

The Year of Disappearances picks up where Society left off, with 14-year-old Ariella (who can pass for 21) living with her mother in Florida, learning how she fits as a vampire in a human world. When a new friend disappears, suspicion falls on Ariella, whose best friend had been murdered only months before. With her incredible intelligence and maturity, Ariella is sent off to a private college by her mother to get away from the town's harassment. But a friend is murdered there, as well.

The story really has a lot of potential. How could it not, with Society's haunting prose and intelligence? But Hubbard just seemed bent on packing as many unnecessary elements into the plot as possible. Besides vampires and classes of vampires, which didn't bother me, there were also evil harbingers, sasas (demons that can take over animals or humans), black market drugs that humans think can turn them into vamps, and a (secret) vampire running for president. All of this is thrown in with the series of disappearances/murders taking place around Ari, and by the time that mystery is solved, the whole plot has just become so convoluted that I could care less.

Factor in this teenage girl dealing with being a vampire, having her first real relationship and thinking about sex, her friends missing or murdered, her father deathly ill, college at age 14 -- that's enough for one novel, don't you think? So I asked the 15-year-old, vamp-loving, book-devouring girl who regularly comes to the library what she thought of The Year of Disappearances.

"The author tried too hard," she said. And that best sums it up.

2.75 stars

Monday, May 26, 2008

"The Host," by Stephenie Meyer

In the world that Meyer has created, alien souls have taken over the world and inhabit the bodies of humans, called hosts. They carry on life in much the same way humans once did, with the exception that there is no violence.

When a renegade human woman, Melanie, has been captured after living for years in hiding, a special soul is placed inside of her. Named Wanderer for the many planets she has lived on, the soul's duty is to reveal Melanie's memories and secrets to a Seeker, one who locates these renegade humans. The Seeker, a particularly (and unusual for souls) nasty woman, is determined that Wanderer find out through Melanie's memories if there are any more humans in hiding.

There is one problem, though: Melanie hasn't really gone away. She is still locked up in Wanderer's mind, and she won't let the intruder get the information she needs. Through months of work, Wanderer recovers memories of two other humans, Melanie's brother Jamie and the love of her life, Jared. In fact, the memories are so rich and emotional, that Wanderer herself cannot help falling in love with them. Melanie convinces Wanderer that they need to find them to make sure they are safe, which means escaping the Seeker and locating a hidden reserve in the Arizona desert.

This summary is already long, and this was just the first 100 pages of the 600-page book. While the beginning was a bit slow, which is typical when an author has to not only introduce a foreign idea or concept of a world but then also explain how it came to be and so forth, there was enough action and heart to the story to get me to keep reading. And I'm glad I did! I thoroughly enjoyed The Host.

Once Wanderer (in Melanie's body, remember) finds the people she's looking for, will they believe that Melanie is still alive inside, or will they shoot Wanderer on sight? And how exactly does it work when two women in one body love the same man?

Now, there were a few problems. First, the book, as I mentioned, is pretty long. However, it doesn't drag. There is a lot of action and a lot of emotion in the book, and I couldn't help but be drawn in. Those who had a problem with Meyer's main character Bella in the Twilight series will no doubt have problems with Wanderer as well. As this alien soul, Wanderer is adverse to violence in any form, so expect a lot of cringing, a lot of crying, a lot of trembling ... and eventually, a lot of male protection.

On the other hand, it has its purpose. Its meant to show the ugliness that is within all humans, though who could blame their feelings of hate toward beings who essentially took away the lives of their hosts? And Wanderer's self-sacrificing nature is meant to show the goodness and love that can overcome hate. While they seem at odds, Wanderer will find that humans aren't all inherently monsters, as she will find that she is more like the humans than she'd have ever believed. Likewise, the humans (some of them, anyway) will see that their notions of the souls as evil parasites isn't as cut and dried as they thought.

Would definitely recommend The Host to sci fi fans. They'll appreciate all the worlds Wanderer describes as her previous homes. And I'll definitely read the book again sometime ... probably when the sequel comes out (because you know there'll be one!).

4 stars

Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen," by Susan Gregg Gilmore

Catherine Grace Cline is the daughter of a preacher in Ringgold, Georgia, and is desperate to leave her small-town life. Every week she and her younger sister sit at the local Dairy Queen, eating dilly bars and plotting their escape. Catherine Grace resists the pull of marriage to a high school sweetheart and the wishes of her father to remain, and always whines about why God has forsaken her (her mother dies when Catherine Grace is young, so she is forced to do things like go to a mother-daughter tea party as a server. *gasp*).

She turns 18, moves to Atlanta. Dad and sister want her to come home for a visit, she's too busy, blah blah blah. Oh, no! Tragedy strikes! (More like lame, overused plot points.) CG goes home, more "Why, God, why?" moments, then there's a sort of miracle and suddenly "I guess God is a pretty good guy after all." Aw, shucks.

Pardon me while I throw up a little.

Now, I fully admit that I'm not a big fan of the Southern voice, not if it's all about daddy and people with three first names and Sunday picnics by the lake. Gag me. But I tried really hard to get past all of that. While there were some amusing parts, and there's definitely heart to the story, I just couldn't get into it. I should tell you that my co-worker loved it and probably thinks I'm too picky (does she not know all the vampire fiction I've read?). So, take it as you will. While I don't doubt finding salvation at a Dairy Queen (who but God could have created the deliciousness of ice cream?), this book just left me with the waxy taste of cone coating in my mouth.

2.5 stars

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Standing Still," by Kelly Simmons

Claire has three young daughters, a husband who spends most nights away on business, and a secret past that has left her with a panic disorder. On an evening when her husband Sam is gone, Claire hears glass breaking upstairs. When she reaches her oldest daughter's room, an intruder is standing with the girl in his arms. Claire offers herself in exchange and is unknowkingly caught up in scheme more complex than just a kidnapping for ransom.

For the next week, she is held captive in a hotel room with the kidnapper. Worried for the safety of her family, she waits for the ransom to be paid, all the while wondering if her past has caught up to her and if more danger lies ahead.

I could not put this novel down. The late-night reading left me with headaches the next day, but it was worth it. I look forward to more books by this brilliant author, who brought to life a story by switching between present-day scenes and snapshots of Claire's past. Expect to learn about the best and worst in humanity, and that sometimes you can find them both in one person.

5 stars

"The Next Thing on My List," by Jill Smolinski

June Parker takes mercy on fellow Weight Watcher Marissa, whom she sees teetering down a sidewalk on high-heeled shoes, and offers her a ride. A freak car accident leaves Marissa dead and leaves June wracked with guilt, especially after cleaning the blood off of Marissa's purse in order to return it to the girl's family and finding a slip of paper that details all the things she'd hoped to accomplish before her 25th birthday. After months of moping and depression (and being dumped by her boyfriend), June visits Marissa's grave on the six-month anniversary of her death. She meets Marissa's brother and mentions the list she'd found. Because he is angry that June hadn't returned the paper, she blurts out that she intends to finish Marissa's list.

With the deadline of Marissa's 25th birthday, June sets out on tasks great and small, such as see a sunrise, change someone's life, and "Make Buddy Fitch pay." She enlists the help of a friend and a few co-workers to help her make her goals.

The Next Thing on My List was a very quick read and packs an emotional punch. Sure, it has its moments of predictability. On the other hand, it's always nice to read something that isn't mainly about getting a guy and wondering why he hasn't called. This book also shows how one person can have an amazing amount of influence on others' lives. I suggested Smolinski's book to co-workers, and each one loved it. Librarian approved!

I wasn't completely with the ending, as the guy June ends up with kinda skeeves me out. Points docked for the ick-factor.

4 stars

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Airman," by Eoin Colfer

Conor Broekhart was born in a hot air balloon as it was being shot down by enemy fire. Talk about a dramatic entrance.

Conor's best friend is the princess Isabella, and after saving her in a tower fire by turning a flag into a parachute, he is knighted by the king and invited to daily lessons by famed swordsman and scientist Victor Vigny. As he grows into a young man, Conor and Victor explore the field of aeronautics, devising plans to create a heavier-than-air flying machine. Their dreams come to an abrupt halt when Conor witnesses the assassination of Victor and the king. He is thrown into a prison and told that the rest of the kingdom will be told he was an accomplice to the murders. There he toils in a mine for two years, plotting and planning an escape, becoming a man who will do what he has to to survive.

Though Airman is young adult fiction, it didn't feel like Colfer held anything back. The action and plotline was exciting, very Count of Monte Cristo. The character of Conor is well-developed, and though he is placed in extreme situations where one would expect the hero to take lives to save his own, Colfer never allows Conor to become a killer. I think anyone, teenager or adult, would thoroughly enjoy Airman. I may have to look into getting his other books.

5 stars

Sunday, March 09, 2008

"Falling Boy," by Alison McGhee

"Falling Boy" called to me from the bookstore shelf. Its provacative cover hinted at a graphic novel, but its content spoke of tragedy and perseverance. It was enough to make me take it to the cash register.

Joseph, 16, is wheelchair bound from an accident that he won't speak about. He is taken to Minneapolis, Minn., to live with and to work in the same bakery as his father. There we meet co-worker Zap, who is 17, and frequent visitor Enzo, who is 9. Zap and Enzo, sworn enemies for reasons unknown throughout most of the book, have one thing in common: they believe Joseph is a superhero. Zap tells stories to one and all about Joseph's ability to fly, proclaiming Joseph was injured after falling off a mountain. Enzo daily grills Joseph on his super powers, demanding to know why he refuses to stand and walk.

But the great power of this book comes from Joseph. The reader cannot help but be swept up in his story as he struggles to find himself, to cope with this life and handicap, to forgive and accept his humanness.

McGhee's writing tantalizes by bringing magical elements into an otherwise tragic story, leaving readers with a sense of hope that Joseph will make it through the real world.

4 stars

Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Atonement," by Ian McEwan

With the movie being released March 18, I decided that I needed to read the book as soon as possible. And after dear Laura Llew gave it such a glowing review, how could I resist picking up a copy?

Unfortunately, the first third of the book was so bogged down with narration that I had to force myself just to continue reading. Obviously I love details, as shown by the title of my regular blog. But do I really need to read five pages about the mother's migraine, how she keeps it at bay, what she thinks about during her secluded hours while keeping it at bay and what she doesn't think about because it might make her pain worse? I don't need more than a brief account of the minor characters' histories unless it is absolutely crucial to the plot. Which most of it wasn't.

Then! Oh, then it got so much better! I couldn't stop reading. It was moving, it was haunting, it was deliciously painful.

However, the momentum didn't last. The ending left me feeling flat and resentful that I'd even read the book at all. I will still see the movie, as it is sure to be visually stunning. I'm still disappointed by the book, though.

3.5 stars (because the middle had such promise)

Monday, January 28, 2008

"Heartsick," by Chelsea Cain

Oh, mama. I couldn't put this book down! It was dark and disturbing (very disturbing), but oh so tender in parts.

Archie Sheridan led a task force for 10 years, trying to find and stop a serial killer who was always three steps ahead of the feds. Then he walked right into her trap, and he was tortured for 10 days before she inexplicably let him go and turned herself in. Two years later, Archie's been called to head up a new task force to stop a serial killer who's preying on young girls. In addition to proving to himself that he can still help, he has to deal with his addiction to pain pills (10 days of torture, people!), the distance he's put between himself and his family, and face the woman who has left Archie with more than just physical scars.

5 stars

"20th Century Ghosts," by Joe Hill

This motley crew of short stories in Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts will have you hooked from the very first page, almost without a break. Despite its name, not all of the stories have to do with ghosts or the supernatural, though each is unique. By far the best story, "Pop Art" is more beautiful and strange than any writer has the right to come up with. Not that I'm bitter. "Best New Horror" takes a formulaic plot and leaves the reader anxious and ready for more.

Just as much humor as horror, 20th Century Ghosts is well worth the read, with only one story I felt was out of place: a father-son story that features baseball. It was a B story in a sea of A's.

4.5 stars